Relating, Creating, Transforming

For…Give.

Luke 16:1-13

forgive
In life, we sometimes encounter confusing and difficult situations. Maybe you are in one of those situations right now. Regardless of the advice that people give you, or conventional wisdom, nothing seems to fit or work. You feel stuck. You are not sure how to move forward. There are no easy answers.

This kind of life narrative needs to be told. We need to share with others [and ourselves] that it’s okay to feel stuck sometimes and that there are situations without answers or solutions. For me, it has been a comfort throughout my life to hear these stories—to discover that many, many others struggle with some of the same things I do, and that I don’t always have to resolve things. This gives me peace.

So maybe that’s why I appreciate the so-called “hard parables” of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels. These parables are the stories that Bible commentators, preachers, and teachers struggle to decipher. These are the parables that they avoid. They don’t have easy answers and they leave you hanging.

The parable of the unjust steward is one of those difficult stories. What does it mean? I don’t know, you tell me! But maybe that’s the beauty of it. It’s left open, and it also seems to contradict some of the things we assume about the Bible, God, and Jesus. So let’s explore a bit and see what happens.

First off, one thing we do know is that this story can be connected to the story of the prodigal son. In both stories, a character squanders the wealth he has been given. Also, the audience would have been Jesus’ followers and the Pharisees. The story is pretty straightforward, as a guy wriggles himself out of trouble by doing something pretty dishonest, but at the same time is shrewd enough to put his boss in a tough situation where he cannot fire him. So basically, the boss chooses to save face and thus “saves” the dishonest, shrewd guy. Yes, this is a parable about money. Duh. It’s Luke. Luke’s Gospel is all about money and maybe that’s why many Western Christians avoid it. Oh snap, did I say that?

oh-snap-this-is-getting-good-meme-35315
Anyhoo, Many Western Christians know what is called “The Lord’s Prayer.” But do they know that this prayer is about money? Yep. In Luke, the Lord’s Prayer is about forgiving debts—monetary debts. It’s literally saying that we should forgive the money that people owe us, therefore “releasing” them from the debt.

Okay, wow.

In terms of life application, I need to quote Sarah Dylan Breuer,[1] who has a wonderful blog that interprets various “difficult” Gospel texts. Ms. Breuer asserts that most commentators ask the standard questions like “Who is the steward?” and “Who is the master” but she asks a more pointed question: What does the steward actually do, without permission and dishonestly? 

The answer: the steward forgives debts. This is about forgiveness. So what’s the point of this supposedly confusing story?

Just forgive.

Forgive everything, forgive it today, forgive for any reason whatsoever and for no reason at all. Forgive. This applies to you and me, first of all. Forgive yourself. Just forgive yourself. For the things you regret, for the moments when you feel you failed, just forgive yourself. And then forgive others. That doesn’t mean forget any form of abuse or violence of oppression—but forgive means release the debt that exists between you and that person, because it is bringing YOU down. And it means forgive in the community, the nations, the world. Communities and nations should not be in debt to others. This is part of why the world is so screwed up. Forgive.

There is no bad reason to forgive, says the story, because keeping score is meant for sports and not for life. What does keeping score do for us anyway?

So what do you think?

Teaser for next week: Story of Lazarus and the rich man. What is it that causes some people to have someone in their line of vision and yet not really see them?

SHOUT OUT TO CHARLOTTE AND TULSA AND ALL WHO MOURN.

BLACK LIVES MATTER.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/09/proper_20_year_.html

Luke 15:1-10

empathyEmpathy. Do you practice it? Do you experience it with others? What is empathy to you? For me, a simple definition of empathy is when I can imagine what another person is thinking or feeling—not like reading their mind, but just imagining what they think and/or feel, even if I have never experienced such thoughts or feelings myself.

So empathy, in my view, requires imagination.

Currently in this world [and historically too] we as human beings have struggled to empathize with others who are different. Case in point—throughout history certain people have been afraid of other people just because they looked different, ate different foods, wore different clothes [or no clothes], spoke different languages, etc., etc. Today is no different. People fear other people. How else can you explain the horrible attitudes that way too many people have about skin color, that some cannot even say or hear the words BlackLivesMatter? How else can you explain why certain people are afraid of Muslims? Or transgender people? Unfortunately, there are still far too many people in the world who fear other people.

And obviously, this fear leads to scapegoating, oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. After all, if you are not willing to even imagine what another person thinks or feels, how do you expect to see them as humans just like you? So for me, empathy is way more important than all the other things we try to promote so as to create a more just and “equal” society. Those other things aren’t working; can’t you tell? But I think empathy does work. But I need clarify, with the help of psychology and sociology researchers, that there are two kinds of empathy. Affective empathy is when we experience sensations and feelings in response to another’s emotions. It’s like mirroring. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is perspective taking. We have the ability to identify and understand someone else’s emotions.

Empathy, most researchers suggest, is in our DNA. You can observe empathy in animals as well—dogs, primates, etc. Scientists say that empathy is associated with two different pathways in the brain, and they speculate that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, those cells in the brain that fire when we see someone do something much in the same way we would do it. So the research and biological history suggest that empathy is part of our genetic makeup. The problem is not how we are wired. The problem is that we are capable of enhancing or restricting our natural empathetic abilities.[1] So, the difficult thing to face here is that we can choose to empathize with certain people and we can choose NOT to empathize with others.

Disclaimer: I am aware of the reality for certain individuals who are bipolar, autistic, etc. who actually struggle with empathy or who appear to not be able to read another’s emotions at all. There is a lot of research being done on this subject and I by no means am ignoring it. Friends, family members, and colleagues of mine who work/live with children with autism or bipolar disorder experience state that empathy can be taught, though it is more difficult due to difficulty in social communication.Feel free to add your comments below.

All this leads us to two short parables of Jesus of Nazareth, told to a less-than-empathetic crowd of religious elites. Here is the Twitter version of my take:

God looks for those called “lost” by society and simply finds them, no questions asked. Those who make others lost or try to keep them lost are really, truly lost.

The backdrop is that Jesus was being called out by these religious leaders for his tendency to hang out with “sinners” and the “unclean.” You see, for the religious elites, everything boiled down to repentance and redemption, reward and punishment. If you followed the religious rules and remained “clean” in the eyes of God, well, you were okay. If you didn’t, you were outside of God’s realm and pretty much untouchable. Jesus of Nazareth, in this Luke story, seems to be tired of explaining to these religious people why it was so important to see the outcasts and the marginalized as whole human beings who were worthy of love, respect, and community. For Jesus, it was never about repentance or reward and punishment. It was simply about God seeking out and finding those who society ditched. They weren’t lost because they were bad people. They were only lost because society lost them, called them sinners, pushed them away.

And Jesus, in the two parables of the sheep and the coin, refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, namely Ezekiel 34 and the story of the shepherds of Israel who didn’t feed their sheep because they ate all the food themselves. This is a direct shot at the Pharisees and other religious elites who just kept on ignoring the marginalized. They had no imagination. They showed no empathy.

So in the parable, the lost sheep is found. That’s it. That’s the point. The lost sheep is found and welcomed back. No questions asked. Just found. Same with the parable about the lost coin. A woman, the representation of God, lights the lamp, sweeps the house, searches diligently for the lost coin until she spots it. And when she finds it, she celebrates. The coin, like the sheep, is simply lost and then simply found.

And so, in my view, God is an empathetic figure in every way. Neither the shepherd or the woman are concerned with religion, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other category we use as an excuse to not empathize. They just search and search for the lost and then find and find. They can imagine what it’s like to feel lost. They can imagine what it’s like to feel shut out or to be called lesser or unclean or weird. So the real question is: will we imagine? Will we empathize?

I think one of the major problems of “religious” people is that we strive to be “good” or “righteous” and so we do “good” or “righteous” things. But we do these things for some kind of religious reward, in many cases, heaven or the afterlife, i.e. God’s favor. This is a problem, because for all this “good” we try to do we don’t do it out of compassion or empathy for someone’s situation. We do things for a reward. We do things to look good or religious or because we believe some god will favor us. Again, this is a problem, because then those “others” we claim to be “helping” are just a means to an end. They are not really part of our social circles or friendships. Why? Because to be considered “good” you have to hang out with others who are “good” or who are doing “good.” This is why you see so many religious fanatics avoid hanging out with certain kinds of people. This is what the Pharisees were doing.

I think striving to be good or righteous is not what we ought to do.

I think we ought to imagine more.

Imagine what it’s like to be Black in America, to feel heavy stares of mistrust, to feel lesser, unheard, and undervalued; imagine what it’s like to be non-binary, to have to explain oneself to co-workers, friends and family members again and again that gender can be fluid, that being oneself is more complicated and nuanced than just man or woman; imagine what it’s like to be Muslim, to hear and see the comments online or in person, claiming that you are a terrorist, shouting that you should go back to wherever you came from; imagine what it’s like to be a person feeling empty, lost, and alone.

What would happen if we stopped trying so hard to be good and we just imagined some else’s situation and empathized? What if we just did that and acted out of compassion?

[1] 2016 The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jeremiah 18:1-4

potter
I don’t know how many of you have ever made pottery or at least watched someone else do it. It is a fascinating process and one that requires great patience, care, and creativity. Also, at least in my case, pottery-making involves A LOT of mistakes and starting over again.

Perhaps this is why many people in the Christian and Jewish traditions embrace a very small portion of an otherwise-ominous book of Hebrew prophetic scripture called Jeremiah. In general, most of the prophetic books are ominous and quite pessimistic, but in all fairness, it makes sense. I mean, consider Jeremiah’s context. These prophetic writings were penned over about four decades of not-so-great times in Israel, starting with the thirteenth year of King Josiah (627 BCE) and finishing with the eleventh year of King Zedekiah (586). In short, Jeremiah experienced the time in Israel just before, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem when the Babylonians took over. So obviously, Jeremiah’s words are generally pessimistic.

What is interesting theologically about Jeremiah is the tension between what is called “temple theology” and “covenant theology.” Real quick explanation. Temple theology says: nothing bad will happen to us [in this case, Israel] because Yahweh will protect us and the religious temple of Jerusalem. Covenant theology, on the other hand, says: Yahweh will reward us for our obedience and punish us for disobedience. It is “if-then” philosophy, i.e., if we do this or that, then Yahweh will do this or that.[1] 

This tension, I argue, still exists in modern theology today. Some people [across religious traditions] believe that no matter what, a higher power will save them/bless them/protect them. Many times they believe that because they assume that the higher power accepts their religion as the best one or the truest one. And then contrarily, there are some who believe that this higher power will reward and punish them based on their obedience or disobedience of particular religious rites and rules. Okay, still with me? Do you identify or resonate with either of these viewpoints? Were you raised to believe something similar?

As you think about that, now consider the allegory/image of the potter. Within this image are these two viewpoints, and I will suggest, an alternative viewpoint as well. First, consider what a potter might have been in the time of Jeremiah. Judean ceramic pots, in Jeremiah’s image, would not have been ornate, decorative works of art. These pots would have been functional, made of cheaper materials, and expected to last only a short time. This is why when YHWH calls on the prophet to visit the potter, this is normal and something that he would do quite often. Time for another pot as the last one no longer was usable. But don’t let this fool you. The old pots and the clay, for the potter, are not trash.

The potter is constantly interested in recycling and reuse.

For example, those of you who are potters know that a potter will periodically start a project and then decide that the project is failing and so they will abandon the original idea and start something new. I have heard that potters keep containers of scraps of clay and even pieces of old projects. These discarded pieces can be used or reclaimed as usable clay for new projects. Considering that, this is where I find an alternative to the temple and covenant theology I mentioned early.

I am not one to believe in a Yahweh/God/higher power /presence that punishes and rewards people according to how much they obey or disobey certain rules or moral codes. Neither do I buy the idea that the Divine favors one religion or nation over others, no matter what. For me, it’s all about the potter and the clay—very simple. Potters don’t waste clay. They recycle. They rework the clay. It’s not punishment or reward. It’s not favoritism.

It’s love of the art, the creative spark, and the hope that even discarded pieces from failed projects can be a part of something new, wonderful, and whole.

The discarded clay can be part of a new ceramic vessel and hold something important like wine, water, or oil.

So what do you think? How are we clay? What are your thoughts about this image?

[1] See Alphonetta Wines, “Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy—An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2011), 58.

Luke 10:38-42

distract
What makes you feel distracted?
What distracts you from being your true self?

Facundo-Cabral
Facundo Cabral, Argentine singer, songwriter, and philosopher (1937-2011), once wrote about distraction and depression. Here is an excerpt:

You are not depressed; you are distracted. You believe that you have lost something, which is impossible, because everything that you have was given to you.  You did not make a single hair of your head so you can not own anything.  In addition, life does not subtract things, it liberates you from them. It makes you lighter so that you can fly higher and reach the fullness. From cradle to grave, it is a school, and that is why those predicaments that you call problems are lessons, indeed.

Liberate yourself from the tremendous burden of guilt, responsibility, and vanity, and be ready to live each moment deeply, as it should be.

Love till you become the beloved, and even more! Love till you become the love itself!

This NT Gospel story is about distraction and about choosing a better way.
Here’s how it
goes:

Martha extends cultural hospitality to Jesus.
Mary sits and listens to Jesus’ teachings.
Martha completes the obligatory tasks of hospitality.
Martha complains that Mary has neglected said tasks.
Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her.
Jesus responds that Mary has chosen the better activity.

This story follows the parable of the Samaritan. This is a parallel tale.
Samaritan story: a dying man on the side of the road, but the obligation to help is not there for priest & Levite. They walk on by. The Samaritan is not obligated either, but chooses to help out of compassion.
Mary/Martha story: Jesus comes to their home. Martha feels obligated, according to the customs of society, to offer food and drink to Jesus. She considers that to be the most important thing. Mary shows hospitality to Jesus also, but not out of obligation. She sits at his feet and listens. Martha’s anxiety over getting the hospitality thing out of the way leads her to possibly resent Mary’s sitting.

Don’t be fooled, though. This is not Martha vs. Mary. Jesus does not rebuke Martha, remember. He simply states that Mary has chosen the better thing, just as compassion is better than obligatory service in the Samaritan story. Mary chooses to love and to show hospitality, but in a way that society did not require. Martha’s hospitality was fine, but it didn’t go the extra step. This is why Martha felt anxiety and was distracted. Or maybe Martha was anxious because she couldn’t find Pokémon? 

pokemonGo
Also, compare Mary to the Samaritan—both heroes in these stories.

The Samaritan was obviously an unexpected hero who fulfilled the law by acting with compassion. Mary, a female, was an unexpected hero by not filling the typical role for a woman and instead acting out of genuine love and desire to learn; she became a student/disciple.

The thing is, Martha is fine, too, until she lets her anxiety get the best of her. When she calls out Mary, she has stopped being hospitable. Now it’s all about her.

Jesus visits her house, not to praise her for what she does or how well she does it, but instead, Jesus comes to tell Mary and Martha that they are both valued for who they are as children of God.

This is the better thing—to listen to that voice, to embrace your value as a person; to not measure your deeds or to compare yourself to others. When we do that, we get distracted.

My take: we can do a lot of things. We can fill schedules and calendars. We can appear busy. And yet, if life is just about completing those tasks, where will we find love, compassion, and peace? Will our actions just be another thing to check off of a list, will we start to resent others who don’t “work” as hard as we do? Will we ever stop to just sit and listen, which to me, is checking in with ourselves? This kind of life can be depressing and empty.

At the same time, though, it’s not just about sitting and listening. The listening helps us to hear a good word about who we are as human beings—that we are loved and our worth is not measured by what we do or don’t do. After listening, though, we find strength to live, to do good things in the world. Look, this planet we live on is wrought with heavy and sad things—plenty with which to distract us and make us feel more anxiety and worry. 

And yet, we can stop to sit and listen. We are capable of that. Sometimes stopping and listening means that you stop talking and actually listen to another person’s point of view or their story without planning how you will respond. Maybe you’ll just listen. Or you may sit for a moment, take a break from your schedule and live a few moments that are unplanned. Or perhaps you need to hear the kind and compassionate voice in the midst of all the heavy and hateful voices. The kind voice says that life matters most above all things, and so anyone’s life in danger is your life in danger. And that is motivation to show love to people at all times; that is motivation to show love to yourself.

So may you find moments to sit and listen in a world that doesn’t seem to encourage that better activity. May you listen to others. May you embrace your whole self, realizing that your value is not measurable by the number of things you complete in a day, a week, or a lifetime. May you not compare yourself to others. May you listen to and embrace compassion, and then may you show it to others.

 

Who Are Our Neighbors?

Luke 10:25-37

WhoMattersMoreWhelp, this is a well-known story.

I’ll try to highlight some of the details that may sometimes go unnoticed before I share some thoughts. First off, the person asking the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is a lawyer. Why that is significant is because of what lawyers do. Lawyers qualify and define elements of the law, correct? Good lawyers are concerned about justice. So, in this case, the lawyer is examining the Mosaic Law of the Jewish faith to find out exactly what he must do to justify himself before God. This is not an attack on Jesus. This is a legitimate question. What do I need to do to be right with God? Jesus responds appropriately: “What does the law say?” And the lawyer knows:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, life, power, and thought; love your neighbor just as you love yourself.”

That’s from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. And Jesus says: “There you go, good job. Done.” But the lawyer isn’t satisfied. So he asks a follow-up question: Who is my neighbor? And then Jesus tells the famous parable-story. Some insight:  it begins in a typical way like many ancient Jewish teaching stories—with an introduction akin to a joke: A priest, a Levite, and an Israelite walk into a bar…

But in this case:
A dude is beaten up and dying on the side of the road, and then, a priest, a Levite, and….

And an Israelite walks by…right?

Uh, no. Remember that probably there were at least 70 people listening to this story. They all expected for the third character, the hero, to be an Israelite. But wait—it wasn’t. Before we get there, some quick notes on the first two characters. The priest decided not to help the dying man, most likely because he wasn’t sure if the dying man was a Jew. Better to be safe than sorry, because if he were not a Jew, going anywhere near him would defile the priest and he’d have to go through a lengthy process of becoming clean again. Oh, and also, the guy might die soon. So a priest certainly couldn’t touch him. The priest is the higher class, the elite. Then, the Levite. The Levites were not as high as a priest, but they were descendants of Levi and assisted the priests in the temple. The Levite decided to pass by, because maybe he saw the priest? How could he do that which the priest passed up? So the Levite walked on by. So now the lower-class Israelite will arrive and save the day, right? WRONG!

It’s a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a mixed race between Jews of captivity [when they were exiled from Israel] and the Samaritan people of the actual land of Samaria. Jews [called Israelites, too] were hostile towards Samaritans. The Mishna, the oral traditions of Judaism that developed about law, say this about Samaritans in Mishna Shebiith 8:10: “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine.”

Right. That’s harsh. Also, you may remember Jesus talking to a certain Samaritan woman at a well of water? She told him: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan” [John 4:9]? This Samaritan, though, would be bound by the same law as the Jews. So seeing a dying person on the side of the road was equally dicey. This dying person did not qualify as the Samaritan’s neighbor. So why did he help?

Because he was moved with compassion.

He did the right thing, regardless of the ethnic and religious conflicts involved. He put himself at risk. And the crowds listening would assume that the half-dead person now rescued by the Samaritan was Jewish. So add that to the drama. Jesus tells the lawyer: go and do the same.

The lawyer wanted to know who we are obligated to love. Jesus answers with a story that says it’s not about obligation, of loving the person near to you, or like you. Jesus erases the line of difference. Whoever is in need or hurting is your neighbor.

mylifematters1Friends, in the course of 72 hours this past week, all sorts of &*$! went down. Two more Black lives were taken away. Their names are Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It was needless violence, and yes, it was committed by police officers and once again against Black people. And then, violent individuals not affiliated with the peaceful BlackLivesMatter demonstrators in Dallas, Texas, opened fire on police and civilians, taking the lives of five Dallas police officers and harming many others. As a white person, I cannot understand the racial profiling that others have experienced. I can only stand with my friends and colleagues while they express anger, frustration, and grief. I can only continue to work for understanding and peacemaking in our communities. I can only choose to be vocal and to say that Black lives do matter.

girlBLMWhen thinking about this burning question of who is my neighbor, this is what I hear:
My neighbor is anyone and all who are ignored, discriminated against, treated as lesser, and all who are the targets of racism and prejudice.
I cannot just walk by and ignore their suffering; I shouldn’t try to silence their anger, frustration, and sadness. I should love them. I should stand with them. Loving my neighbor compels me to help put an end to this sick, institutional, societal racism in this country, inspires me to continue to talk with colleagues and church and community folk about why it’s important to stop saying that if we support Black Lives Matter that we are “against” the police or “against” others. That is not only false, it is also harmful. We can be “for” the just treatment of Black people everywhere and also “for” those in law enforcement. We can be “for” the honesty of admitting that the U.S. has deep, racist roots within its systems and society. And at the same time, while we support Black Lives Matter, we can also support the just treatment of undocumented immigrants, transgender and non-binary folk, the poor and homeless, the abused, and all else who deserve our love and attention. Of course we can.

I close with some words from the UCC’s Acting Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries, Rev. Traci Blackmon:
Ultimately, the guns used to kill those 5 officers last night and wound 6 more and 1 civilian and the guns used to kill Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, 49 mostly black and latinx people who were LGTBQ at Pulse in Orlando, and the 9 people in bible study in Charleston, were loaded by our common enemies, fear and hate.  This same ammunition is responsible for the bombing of mosques and the burning of churches. This same ammunition fuels the escalating levels of death in our nation’s streets as a result of communal violence. Irrational fear and hatred that nurses at the breast of a nation increasingly divided against itself.

We must mourn them all because we are all connected.
And we must find our way back to love.
Murder is a by-product of people who have lost their love.
Love is our only hope.

changestartsBLM

And look–the WNBA players who chose to wear these t-shirts while warming up for their game were just doing what we should all do. Their message was simple: CHANGE STARTS WITH US. Let’s stop trying to spin things to fit some agenda that isn’t helping to bring us together. Remember the Dallas police officers who protected Black Lives Matter protestors. Let’s set an example for all the kids and youth who are just waiting for us to cooperate and love each other as we should. Come on. Change starts with us.

 

Luke 10:1-11

Speak Peace
This story, in my opinion, is about how one defines success.My initial thoughts on the background of this Luke story: it’s originally a Mark story, but instead of Jesus sending out 12 [as in Mark], Jesus sends 70, or is that 72? Some Bible translations go with 70, while others say 72. Why? I don’t have time to go into all that, but let’s just say it’s all about one little Greek word that appears in some of the copies of Gospel manuscripts and whether or not that particular manuscript copy changes the number, but it’s not really a huge deal. In my perspective, either 70 or 72 leads us right to the Old Testament, and more specifically, to Genesis 10. Often called the table of nations, Genesis 10 reveals all of Noah’s family and offspring. That family, of course, eventually led to the story of Moses, who in Numbers 11 appoints 70 elders and then two more. That’s 72. And these people were filled with “spirit.” Seems like a pretty strong connection to Luke’s Gospel story. The number 70/72 makes Jesus’ calling and sending of disciples a universal action and not some regional movement.

Those people are sent on the “way” to be with other people. They are sent to treat all people with equal respect, to heal social divisions, and to create and participate in open tables. They are “lambs in the midst of wolves,” which reminds them of their vulnerability. If they are to do this work, they will need to be vulnerable with the people they meet and accept their hospitality.

Without community, this work will not happen.

And so, away they go, in pairs. They are to speak peace to every house, which is shalom, the wholeness. If someone reciprocates that peace, peace will rest on that person. If not, the peace comes back to them. Finally, they are to heal the weak. We’re not talking about sick people as we often assume. Healing the weak entails addressing the unjust societal structures that separate people and oppress. Healing can be physical, mental, spiritual, or societal, or all of the above.

So in short, this mission, this living out the Reign of God looks like this: eating, drinking, healing, and fellowship. Oh, and also not dwelling on those who reject the peace and the healing. Shaking the dust off of one’s sandals, in my view, is about moving on and not resenting people, even if they reject you.

In Luke, this is Jesus’ version of success. How does it compare to what churches actually do and say? Hmm…..

I think it’s obvious that most churches today are more concerned than ever before about measuring success. How many people sit in the pews or attend worship? How much money are we taking in? How many new members did we receive last month? Do people remark about our beautiful building? Are we well-respected in the community? I could go on, but you get the idea. The institutional church bases most of its measurement of success on business models or societal structures. For generations, the U.S. Christian church was a standard, old reliable institution in each town, city, and suburb. Then post-modernism came and went. People in those towns, cities, and communities began to see the church institution as no different than any other. Where was the meaning? What made the church uniquely wonderful and different? In fact, most people saw or experienced awful and hurtful things in the church. No wonder they left. No wonder the institution started to decline and continues to decline.

But the institution is not the church, and thank god.

The church is community.

As Jesus sent out people to heal and reconcile, he sent them out in community to be community. Buildings didn’t matter. Strategic financial planning or marketing didn’t matter. What mattered was community, and what that community stood for: justice and peace.

As such, any faith community is our group of 72. We are not in this alone. Faith and spirituality are communal and we make a huge mistake when we try to make it isolated, like when people say: my Bible says, or my God does or says…In our church structures, we struggle the most when our leaders and volunteers are completely autonomous. We become fragmented, burned out, and disconnected. Why? Because that’s not how it’s supposed to work. We are supposed to be a community of staff, volunteers, leaders, etc. Males and females, non-binary zes, children, teenagers, young adults, older adults, people behind the scenes and people in front, creative and visionary minds and detail-oriented and task-oriented minds. We are supposed to be radically together in community. This means that every little and big thing we do in our faith communities is for the good of the whole, for something bigger than ourselves.

How do you measure success? It matters how you answer that. People struggle their whole lives trying to achieve goals they never reach and end up feeling tired, disappointed, and out of balance. But what if this story offers us some insight? What if success is not measured by numbers, money, degrees, and prestige?

What if success is measured by community, and how people treat each other within that community?

What if success is welcoming all to the table?

Consider this from St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless others now.

Note: next week I’ll post something about Luke 10:25-37 and ask the question: Who Are Our Neighbors?
I’ll say right now, however, that #BlackLivesMatter!
BLM
And all who are ignored, discriminated against, treated as lesser, and all who are the targets of racism and prejudice, we won’t stand by and watch it happen; we won’t be silent. You should have the space to express your anger, frustration, and sadness. We love you. We will stand with you. Let’s put an end to this sick, institutional, societal racism. And let’s stop saying that if we support Black Lives Matter that we are “against” the police or “against” others. That is not only false, it is also harmful. We can be “for” the just treatment of Black people everywhere and also “for” those in law enforcement. We can be “for” the honesty of admitting that the U.S. has deep, racist roots within its systems and society. And at the same time, while we support Black Lives Matter, we can also support the just treatment of undocumented immigrants, transgender and non-binary folk, the poor and homeless, the abused, and all else who deserve our love and attention. Of course we can.

Luke 9:51-62

journeyhobbitAs a kid, I read The Hobbit numerous times. I’ve reread it as an adult, too. There are many reasons why I like it—the good storytelling, the characters, creatures, languages, and cultures. The overarching theme, though, is what always draws me in. Bilbo Baggins, the little Hobbit with the hairy feet, is the protagonist. And he’s joined by others who are pulled from their comfortable or seemingly routine lives into an adventure they could never have imagined. Elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, ghost kings, giant spiders, and oh yes, a dragon that talks.

Bilbo, at nearly every step of his journey, is reluctant to move forward.

He resists. From time to time, he looks back at his once-comfortable, mundane life in his hobbit hole called Bag End in the village of Hobbiton. He misses his plates and forks, his full pantry, his wine, ale, food, and pipe. But those moments of looking back don’t last long. Bilbo must keep moving forward on his journey towards the Misty Mountain. And even at the end of his story [at least the end of the book], it is obvious that Bilbo cannot go back to his old life. Sure, his hobbit hole will still be there, but he is forever changed. He is not the same Hobbit that a bunch of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf met some time ago. Since leaving Hobbiton, Bilbo can never go back. The Hobbit lifts up these themes: giving up control; taking risks; Compassionate, loving, reckless abandon.

Let’s take a closer look at another story about the journey, in Luke’s Gospel. Like Bilbo, Jesus of Nazareth sets out on a new journey. He is no longer in Galilee. Now, Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem. This is a new trajectory, a new journey, and one that will be paved with many adventures, much risk, and great danger. By this point, people are taking notice of this Jesus. So he sends messengers ahead to check things out, as they near Jerusalem and approach a village of Samaritans. Remember that Samaritans and Jews did not like each other. They were close in culture and religion, but a violent past had caused both parties to be resentful of each other. So it is no surprise that the Samaritans in this particular village on the way to Jerusalem blocked Jesus and co. Anything to do with Jerusalem was anti-Samaritan, as far as they were concerned.

Then James and John, part of Jesus’ entourage, figured it was time to bring down the hammer on the Samaritans. Why not? Jesus was like Elijah the prophet to them and they remembered an old story in the Hebrew Scriptures about getting rid of people who resisted Yahweh’s work. So they asked Jesus if it would be appropriate for them to command fire to come down and consume the Samaritans.

Really?

If there ever was a moment when I thought that Jesus’ disciples were totally lost, this is it. Are you kidding? It turns my stomach. Obviously, Jesus rebukes them, but still. What in the world were those disciples thinking?

So they go to another village (obviously) and now some people along the road are wishing to join Jesus’ entourage. But it wasn’t Jay Z’s entourage. There were no perks, free lunches, or nice hotel rooms.

Jay-Z-008
Even animals have a place to live, right? But according to Jesus, that was not a guarantee for his followers. This was no cush journey.

Then, yet another person seems to be close to joining Jesus on the journey, but he has some family business to take care of. Burying one’s father is a metaphor for family obligations. He wasn’t able to let go of those obligations to take this new journey. And then another would-be follower expresses willingness to follow Jesus, but he still needs to say goodbye to some people. Not good enough, says Jesus. Let the dead bury the dead and don’t look back.

In my perspective, this is a story about letting go—about moving forward, which means not looking back so much. Often people assume that being a Christ-ian, or a follower of Christ, is about believing something or following a particular religious tradition. That may be true for the various branches of Christianity over the centuries, but it was not true in the Gospels. Jesus was not leading a religion. Jesus was asking people to follow him to a new way of being. And this new way of being was different for each and every person.

For some, Jesus invited them to follow him, because they needed that. Perhaps they had never been invited in their entire lives. They were the outcasts, the untouchables, those whom the religious people didn’t want to hang out with. So Jesus healed them, invited them, and they joined the entourage of the mercy train.

But also, there were those who wanted to follow Jesus. They asked to follow. And each time, Jesus asked them if they were really sure about that. I mean, this would be no prosperity gospel; they would not gain anything materially; they might actually lose material wealth. They wouldn’t be heralded or esteemed; they might even be ridiculed or thought of as strange. And above all, they would have to let go—let go of their world views that were harmful; let go of their prejudices; let go of their attachments to beautiful temples and powerful armies and governments; they would even need to let go of family obligations and guilt. In short, for those who said they wanted to follow Jesus, it was the most difficult, because unlike the outcasts, these would-be followers struggled to let go.

I’ll close with some thoughts about letting go, because I know for many of you, letting go is hard. Let me start by saying what I don’t mean. By letting go I don’t mean that those of you who have been abused in any way, or who have suffered great trauma in the past [and are still obviously dealing with it], I don’t mean that you ought to just get over it. The things that were done to you were of course not your fault, and the healing process of coping with such trauma lasts a lifetime and is an everyday enterprise. Also, keep in mind that Jesus of Nazareth never said “get over it” to any of those who were considered outcasts or who were in need of healing. They were healed and invited on the journey.

What I mean by letting go refers to those reluctant people in the story [and any of us] who are attached to material things and human obligations so much that we cannot move forward. Those of us who are consistently looking back and so full of nostalgia [both good and bad] that the present day is less important and life is stagnant.

Here are some things that have helped me let go of such things obligations. I hope this is helpful for you:

Finding stillness and breathing. Okay, maybe this is weird for some? For me, meditation is helpful, but by meditation I mean just pausing. Really pausing. Stop, even for a few moments, and listen to your breathe. Try it.

Understanding. What has happened in your life? Don’t judge those things. Observe them. Be aware.

Accepting your history. Don’t try to change it. It’s done.

Letting go of judgements, expectations, and material things, as much as possible.

Assessing. What matters most to you in life? Are you pursuing this?

Allowing the Path to be revealed. Don’t force it.

Contributing to the well-being of others, even when you feel angry, sad, or hopeless.

Having fun and laughing. Life actually is short.

Being grateful. Let your gratefulness overcome any complaining.

What things help you to move forward and to let go?

Next week’s teaser: Luke 10:1-11: How Do You Measure Success?

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